Beloved by Toni Morrison review

Beloved needs no introduction, and is written in such poetic form that any words I contribute are reductive at best. However, as it left me reeling and slightly broken, I’ve attempted a longer than usual review to do it justice.

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Beloved, from one of my favourite bookstores, Imprints.

It is about the impact of slavery on one woman, Sethe, and is dedicated to

‘Sixty Million

and more’.

Sethe is free in the sense that she escaped from her owners at Sweet Home, but she is traumatised, both physically and mentally – she trying to hold onto herself but her idea of her ‘self’ is wrapped up in her dead baby girl; she does not think of herself as a person apart from that. The taking of this – the effect of slavery on her psyche – is particularly cruel.

She is left with memories that she cannot face, scars from hell, and a constant fear of returning.

Such was Sethe’s trauma that she killed her daughter when she saw white men coming to take her children away. Her daughter’s ghost, ‘Beloved’, haunts the house she shares with her surviving girl Denver.

How much pain can a person bear and still be themselves? Another survivor, Paul D, asks Stamp Paid something like this in a poignant scene late in the story, which I do not want to spoil. But I found this to be at the heart of the novel, that a person could endure slavery and survive it, in that their body is there, but what is left when their innocence, their faith in humanity, their songs and their children have been taken?

A rooster named Mister was the breaking point for Paul D:

“Mister was allowed to be and stay what he was. But I wasn’t allowed to be and stay what I was. Even if you cooked him you’d be cooking a rooster named Mister. But wasn’t no way I’d ever be Paul D again, living or dead.”

Thus Morrison tackles the idea of freedom and the way that slaves were deprived not only of their physical freedom but the ability to be themselves.

Baby Suggs (Sethe’s mother-in-law), a great character and the soul of the novel, expresses this. Tired to the point of ‘marrow weariness’, she tells Stamp Paid of the day the white men came for Sethe, “They came into my yard.”

Much later, he understands:

“The heart that pumped out love, the mouth that spoke the Word, didn’t count. They came in her yard anyway and she could not approve or condemn Sethe’s rough choice.”

As the best novels do, Morrison has us empathizing with the characters without judgment. Sethe has killed her daughter, whom she heart-breakingly calls ‘crawling already? girl’ and is haunted by the ghost of baby Beloved, and then by a girl of the same name.

I don’t enjoy supernatural elements in books, but I read this part as a way of showing the trauma Sethe has suffered: a lifetime of atrocities, pushing her mind to breaking point.

Like the approach Kurt Vonnegut took in Slaughterhouse Five, some horrors are unspeakable, can only be alluded to, and manifest themselves in other ways or forms. He (and Paul Beatty in The Sellout) used humour, but a great darkness lies beneath it.

Stamp Paid can hear the murmur of the ghost(s) in the house. This is how Morrison describes him standing at the front door, listening to the voices:

“The people of the broken necks, of fire-cooked blood and black girls who had lost their ribbons.

What a roaring.”

There are echoes of the voices in a later scene, which I won’t spoil.

The notion of evil runs through much of the story, and the hypocrisy of the people who perpetrated this evil while suggesting it was black people not they, who were less than human. Morrison manages to explore this with subtlety and nuance but it is relentless at the same time. She also touches on the effect on white people of their own evil.

“Whitepeople believed that whatever the manners, under every dark skin was a jungle.

But it wasn’t the jungle blacks brought with them to this place from the other (livable) place. It was the jungle whitefolks planted in them. And it grew. It spread. In, through and after life, it spread, until it invaded the whites who had made it.”

There is also much kindness – from the white girl who helps Sethe, to Stamp Paid’s good deeds and the women who help Denver towards the end – and moments of tenderness.

The language is strong and exquisite throughout, the form inventive but always in a way that feels necessary, not neat or contrived. Morrison has a superb ear for voice and renders grief as a physical thing. It is visceral and heart-breaking.

I read this for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge: read a classic by an author of colour.  I would love to know if you’ve read it and what you thought. Now I have to go and recover!

10 New(ish) Australian Books

Award winners, future classics and some personal favourites are listed here in my top 10 new Australian books.  In alphabetical order:

1.  Common People by Tony Birch

I bought this recently, prompted by doing this blog post and realising I had no books by indigenous Australian authors.  This is a gap I need to redress, especially given one of the joys of reading is to gain a different perspective from my usual sheltered existence.  Tony Birch has won multiple awards and this short story collection has received rave reviews.  I shall report back once I’ve read it!

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Two award-winning indigenous Australian authors (and an echidna)

2. The Strays by Emily Bitto

Inspired by the Heide artists, this perfectly evokes the time and place of 1930s Melbourne and captures their bohemian lives.  Lily and Eva’s friendship feels like those of our teens, when a friend’s house was a wondrous playground, as they experience the thrills and risks of growing up.  The dark side (lack of parenting) is explored too.  Thoughtfully written with well-crafted characters, this won the 2015 Stella Prize for Australian women’s writing.

3. First Person by Richard Flanagan:

This is a bit of a cheat as it’s not released until October 2017, but I predict a 5-star read.  I loved The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2014 Man Booker prize winner), a thoughtful but unputdownable read with vivid prose and great humanity.  And his earlier novel Wanting, a story of Matthew Franklin (explorer and Tasmanian governor) and Charles Dickens, was a beautifully woven and original tale.

4. The Dry by Jane Harper

I really enjoyed this thriller. A smart protagonist and some realistic local characters, with a strong, well-paced story. Harper creates the atmosphere of a small Australian country town, both the sunburnt landscape and a community on edge. Some bleak aspects but it kept me guessing.

5. The Good People by Hannah Kent:

A widow in 1820s Ireland struggles with her deformed grandson. Doctors are beyond reach, the church no help so Nance offers to cure the boy with herbs & fairy rites.  As in Burial Rites, Kent brings to life women forgotten by history. The language is full of vigour & poetry, she evokes the way of life & land beautifully & the characters, with little to hold onto but their beliefs, feel real. Mary the maid has dignity & resilience, Nora is unflinching & Nance is firm in her wisdom but lives in poverty.  A little slow-paced for me, but thought-provoking and her prose is a treat.

6. An Isolated Incident by Emily Maguire

Shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin award. Another rural Australian thriller, this is distinctive for putting the women front & centre: Chris, whose sister was murdered, & journalist May.  Maguire sustains the constant feeling of threat that men potentially pose to women, and the ambiguities & blurred lines in relationships. She also reflects on the sadness of women having to be on their guard, sometimes putting up defences against men who are trying to love them. None of the characters are simply good or bad though, and this attention to nuance is one of the strengths of the book. Chris is a memorable character and this is a strong, honest book.

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A stack of books by Australian women.

7. Music and Freedom by Zoe Morrison

A beautiful debut, intelligently written.  We follow Alice from her rural Australian youth to Oxford, then to old age.  Her bad marriage is hard to read but so sympathetically described and much is left unsaid.  Subtle and infused with music: Zoe Morrison is a pianist and her knowledge and love of music adds depth to the story.  Brava!

8. Taboo by Kim Scott

This is the latest by Kim Scott, twice a winner of the Miles Franklin award, and looks wonderful (the cover, for a start!).  The first page is strong and, like Common People, his voice has the ring of truth and authenticity.

9. The Boy Behind the Curtain by Tim Winton

Another 5 star prediction from one of my favourite authors and four-time Miles Franklin award winner.  I loved Cloudstreet, an epic family saga and modern Australian classic, and the distilled perfection of Breath.  Winton is a masterful writer and I highly recommend all of his books.

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A trio of my favourite Tim Winton books.

10. The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

I will admit that this has been sitting in my shelf for two years now because I’m too scared to read it.  Winner of the Stella Prize and Prime Minister’s Literary Awards 2016, it has been highly recommended as an important, thought-provoking read, and is described as ‘feminist horror’ story of women who are drugged and imprisoned in a broken-down property in the middle of nowhere. I promise to brave it and report back soon!

And that’s a list of ten, hopefully diverse, Australian books that we should all be reading this year.  Who are your favourite Australian authors?